Google's identity problem

So I finally got my invitation from Google to establish a custom URL for my Google profile. Unfortunately, because "many people have the same name," they want me to add letters and/or numbers to what they pre-selected for me, +LarryAnderson.

This is exactly the problem I thought I would have, and it's idiotic. There's no reason that URLs based on common names shouldn't be first-come, first-served. Also, it's stupid that we can't choose an alternate URL--for me, perhaps +LawrenceAnderson or +LawrenceEAnderson, or even my old Twitter handle, +larand. Twitter, Plurk, App.net, Identi.ca, and even bloody Facebook let me choose the username/URL of my preference, but Google is being difficult about it.

If you were a participant in Google's earlier, ill-fated experiment in social media, Google Buzz, perhaps you remember the kerfuffle over the way they handled it, matching your URL to your Gmail address. Then, when Google+ emerged, they insisted on people using real names only, which caused an additional uproar, forcing them to relent eventually.

Apparently, they have learned nothing.

Pleasant surprises

sunrise

Every once in a while, you start out thinking you're going to have one thing, and end up having something very different. If you're lucky, what you end up with will be a pleasant surprise.

Something like that has happened to me. A few weeks back, I ordered a Nokia Lumia 520--the AT&T GoPhone edition--to test out the local AT&T network. Several years back, I paid a substantial early termination fee to get out of an AT&T contract, because the coverage and service was just so bad. But lately, my Verizon Wireless bill has been ridiculously high, and it led me to consider alternatives. The fact that AT&T has been advertising locally that their 4G LTE network now covers the entire county was a nudge to me to see if things have changed any, and it must be said that I would love to be on a GSM network if the coverage is decent. I'm just tired of never getting the hardware I really want on Verizon.

There's also the feeling I've increasingly been having lately that the superphones, the Galaxy S4s and Lumia 1020s and iPhones 5S of the world, are really overkill. When I think about how I use a phone, it seems to me that inexpensive but capable is the new hotness. It's hard for me to justify spending $199 on contract, or $600-800 off-contract, for a phone when you have a phone as apparently capable as the 520 selling for $99 with no contract. At that price, it's almost disposable.

So I ordered the phone, with the intention that I would use it to check out the network, and meanwhile would have a new toy to play with. By sticking in a 64 GB Micro SD card, I ended up with a $99 72 GB smartphone--except that the proceeds from selling my iPhone 4, coupled with my Amazon credit, meant that the phone effectively cost me nothing apart from the cost of the SD card, which I got for a good price on Amazon. Not a bad deal. I figured that once I finished my test, I'd have an inexpensive MP3 player/GPS device/backup phone.

And then I started using it…and I started to like it. Really, really like it.

Granted, it's not as powerful as my HTC 8X, but I find that I don't really notice that much. You do see the "Resuming…" or "Loading…" message more than you do on the 8X, but it's not excessive. The screen is smaller and lower resolution, but because of the way that Windows Phone handles the UI, it's really not that noticeable. Although I never found my 8X to be excessively large, the 520 just fits in my hand more nicely. And the plastic back cover, while not as nice as the soft-touch finish on the 8X, makes up for that by being removable and replaceable, giving access to the battery, which can also be replaced, unlike the 8X. As mentioned above, it has expandable storage (yay!). This, my friends, is a good thing. The camera is, to my eye, actually a tad better than the one on the 8X--the photo above was taken with it. The screen has better visibility in sunlight than the 8X. The battery life so far seems to be better than that of the 8X. And just like the iPhone 5C, it is gloriously, unapologetically plastic. ;-)

The replaceable cover also means that you can buy one in a different color and change the appearance. Because the cheapo GoPhone version comes with a black cover with an AT&T logo (boring), I ordered a cyan cover from Europe (yes, it cost something, but it was worth it), which Nokia for some reason doesn't offer in the US. Besides being a cool color, it had the side benefit of getting rid of the carrier logo. Nice.

As for the network, it seems fine. So far, I always get a signal, and although the data on the 520 is limited to HSPA+ instead of LTE, I don't really mind. I'm usually on Wi-Fi at home and at the office most of the time anyway.

One thing the 520 doesn't seem to have is an oleophobic coating on the screen, which is unfortunate. Because of that, I find myself wiping the screen clean more often than I might otherwise. It lacks a camera flash, but I never use those anyway, except for a flashlight. And I rather wish the power button was on top, rather than on the right side along with the volume rocker and camera button. But those are minor quibbles. For the price, I'm very happy.

And that's where the pleasant surprise comes in. I carry both phones with me everywhere, and as often as not I find myself reaching for the Lumia.

This was unexpected.

I've begun to realize that when the 30 days is up on the pre-paid plan I used to activate the phone, I'm going to miss using it.

This was really unexpected.

In fact, I'm starting to think that instead of being an almost-disposable way of trying the AT&T network, it might become my primary phone. I'm going to have to run the numbers, but if the projected cost of a pay-as-you-go AT&T plan can save me enough money--and I think it will, to the tune of about $90 a month compared to our current family plan--I might just pay the ETF to get out of Verizon.

And that, my friends, is the most unexpected thing of all.

A few words on the current impasse in DC, this blog, and me

This is a very political post on a currently sensitive topic. Easily offended people probably should not read this. You have been warned. Click here to see cute kittens instead.

Just to be completely clear, I think it's time for me to state the following:

  1. I'm not crazy about the Affordable Care Act as it stands. I'd prefer a single-payer solution. However, we didn't get one, and the ACA is better than the status quo ante. Millions of people will be able to get insurance who weren't able to before, and that's a public good.
  2. The current standoff with the GOP in the House is entirely the fault of about 40 Tea Party GOP members who are acting like terrorists. You can't negotiate with terrorists. Their truculence is threatening the full faith and credit of the United States, and by extension the world economy, and that's despicable. While I have my issues with President Obama, notably on the subject of the NSA surveillance scandal, I support him in not negotiating with a bunch of angry people who are basically making an unreasonable demand, and then insisting that compromise must be found. F*** that.
  3. That is not to say that I believe all Republicans are unreasonable. There are many out there, including Congressmen, who are basically being held hostage to the obsessions of the fringe. Speaker John Boehner is enabling that, allowing himself to be led instead of doing the leading. It will be interesting to see how long he remains Speaker when this is all over.
  4. The point of this blog and of my various social media feeds, whether on Twitter, App.net, Google+ or elsewhere, is to express my opinion. I have no responsibility to anyone to be "fair," even-handed, or to blame both sides of a dispute. Sometimes, one side really is to blame. I also have no responsibility to engage in debate just because someone else wants to. If you don't like what I say, feel free to not follow me. Use your own blog or feed to put forth your opinion. The US is still theoretically a free country, and that is your right (readers elsewhere, please delete and edit as appropriate).
  5. So that you know where I'm coming from, I'm a politically liberal, left-wing registered Green (in case that wasn't already obvious). I think that sometimes government needs to be involved. I also think that corporations are not your friend. I further think that we're becoming an increasingly divided nation, both politically and economically, and that's not a coincidence. I want just enough socialism to overcome the worst aspects of capitalism. There's a balance still waiting to be found.

I think that about covers it. As always, thank you for visiting. :-)

Switching to Windows Phone

A few months back, I wrote a series of posts on longposts.com describing my experience in moving from the iPhone to Windows Phone. Since then, several people have expressed an interest in it, so here it is, combined into one post and updated.

The first thing I'm asked when people find out I've switched away from the iPhone is, "why?" There are a lot of answers I could give, but the simplest one is that I was ready for a change. I have no loyalty to platforms or devices, and I don't really understand that mindset. I've never purchased the same make of car twice in a row, and I'm not sure why it should be any different when it comes to devices. I buy what I like, and what works the best for me. That's all.

A few months ago, Windows Phone wasn't even on my horizon. I knew of it, but had figured that my next phone would be the new Nexus. Two things changed my mind about that: first, that the Nexus 4 lacks LTE, and second, that my carrier, Verizon, doesn't offer it. So I started looking around, and the more I looked at WP8 the more I liked it. Last year, I switched away from Gmail to Outlook.com on my own domain, and I've been pleased, so the idea of using something that was tied into that ecosystem was attractive.

I also found the user interface of WP8 intriguing. There's no question that Apple redefined the smartphone when it introduced the iPhone, but after several years, both iOS and Android remain stuck on the icons-on-a-desktop metaphor. It feels like more can be done. And when I put a WP8 phone next to the Galaxy S3 at the store, it looked much cleaner and more appealing to my eye (admittedly a subjective thing).

The phone I chose was the HTC 8X, so this will focus on the WP8 experience as used on the 8X (_note: since this was written, I've also picked up a Nokia Lumia 520_). I considered the Lumia 920, but as that device is AT&T-only in the U.S. for now, it would have meant switching carriers, which would have meant switching my family plan with 4 lines. Not fun or inexpensive. However, keeping my options open, I went to the local AT&T store and played with one. It's a beautiful phone, but for me, the extra size and weight didn't seem justified by the additional features (storage capacity, Nokia apps, Carl Zeiss lens, etc.). The 8X was much lighter, slimmer, and felt better to hold. So that's the one I went with, staying with Verizon.

There were a few tradeoffs to be made. The 8X is limited to 16 GB, and there's no SD card slot, so you have to manage your storage. But with automatic upload of photos to SkyDrive, there's really no reason to keep photos locally on the phone, which helps keep things manageable. I don't keep a lot of music on my phone, either; if you do, you may wish to consider alternatives. And finally, if you're an app addict, be aware that there are fewer apps to choose from, and you'll need to be more conscious of keeping stuff that you never use. That said, I've had no problem finding equivalent apps for the things I needed. Sometimes that means using apps from third-party developers, which should be a welcome concept for the ADN community. :-)

None of those were problems or deal-breakers for me, but if they are for you, you'd be advised to look at something with more, or expandable, capacity such as the Lumia 920 or the Lumia 822 on Verizon. Of course, each of those comes with tradeoffs as well, but I won't go into those since I have no experience with using them beyond a test flight at the Verizon and AT&T stores. My usual caveat remains: your mileage may vary.

Oh, one last thing before getting into the details: I can't tell you what it's like to use Gmail on WP8, or Google Drive, or so on. I haven't tried. Part of my experiment is to use as many Microsoft services as possible, so that means SkyDrive, Outlook.com, and so forth. If you're hooked on Google Docs, for example, you'll probably be happier with Android. But if you're willing to try the MS stuff, you might be surprised at how well it all works.

With the preliminaries out of the way, let's take a look at the stuff that's really impressed me on my 8X, and on Windows Phone in general.

First, as regards the 8X, I find the design very attractive, and I find that it strikes a good balance between being lightweight and having a comfortable amount of heft. The soft-touch surface provides good grip, and if you feel the need for a case, there's an OEM case that matches the "California Blue" color perfectly (unfortunately, it's only available in that one color at the moment). A few niggles: the power switch could use some more travel, and it's occasionally reluctant to depress. I have found that to be less of a problem as I get used to the device, however. There's also a dedicated camera switch on the side (hallelujah!), but you can still tap the screen to take a photo if you prefer that--it's a user setting. There have also been reports of the finish darkening at the corners, or the soft-touch material flaking off, but I haven't seen any evidence of that yet.

As regards Windows Phone 8, I find it refreshing. It's nice to see a company trying to do something beyond the "iPhone clone" school of design, and I believe that Apple's attorneys actually cited it in the Samsung case as an example of an OS that doesn't infringe Apple's design. Some have consequently argued that it represents a design intended to avoid legal action, rather than a best-practices design, but I disagree. I like it. It avoids skeumorphism, which I hate, and the tiled interface is often easier to manipulate. Live tiles provide the advantages of Android-style widgets while maintaining consistency of design. If this is the result of attorneys consulting on design, then three cheers for attorneys! Overall, WP8 feels very integrated (yes, in an iOS-like way), much more so than Android.

At least on my phone, battery life has been phenomenal. I ordered extra chargers with the phone, but it may have been money wasted. The Verizon version of the 8X offers inductive charging (Qi-compatible), and once you've gotten used to simply setting the phone down on the charging pad, you'll never want to go back to the old way. I take it off the pad when I leave for work, and don't usually need to charge it until I go to bed at night, except in the case of exceptionally heavy use. I've taken a few steps to optimize my battery life; there's a post at http://forums.wpcentral.com/htc-8x/203318-battery-tricks-tips-htc-8x.html which offers some astute suggestions, most of which are common sense. I leave location services on, but have turned off Bluetooth and NFC, neither of which I use.

As for photo quality, it's good enough for me. If you're exceptionally picky about your photos, you may want the Lumia 920, but for the kinds of shots I take the 8X does fine. I'll let the photography geeks argue about the finer points of white balance and low-light image quality, but if you're that particular, you should probably be using a DSLR anyway. I like very much that auto-upload to SkyDrive is in place. If you want the original quality to be preserved (and who wouldn't?) then you need to go into the settings and select that option, which restricts auto-upload to Wi-Fi connections. Otherwise it will upload a reduced-quality image over LTE.

Music? Like I said, I don't put a lot of music on my phone. Right now, in fact, I have no music on my phone, mostly because I haven't decided on what my approach will be. There's an app in the WP store, CloudMuzik, which accesses the Google Play music library, and I might do that. PC users, and those with current Macs, can simply drag-and-drop to the phone, but as I'm on Snow Leopard that's not an option for me. Also, I'd like to minimize the storage footprint on the phone, so a cloud solution is attractive. More on that when I choose something.

Now it's time to look at the negatives--but first, a word about apps.

There's no question that there are fewer apps on WP8 than there are on iOS or Android. That shouldn't surprise anyone--it's a newer platform. But there's a lot of FUD out there about it, and my experience is that there's no problem finding equivalent apps, at least for the things I care about.

Here's a few of my favorites:

ADN: DotDot

Twitter: Mehdoh

Weather: I use the stock Microsoft Weather app, but Bing Weather is a good alternative

Newsblur client: Metroblur

Google Voice client: Metrotalk

Dropbox: BoxFiles

Reddit: Baconit

Kindle: Kindle for Windows Phone

ePub reader: Readu

Facebook: Facebook for Windows Phone

Google Maps: gMaps (although the Bing Maps app works really well)

YouTube: MetroTube

Picasa Web Albums: Picasa Metro

Starbucks: Starbucks Finder

Traffic: INRIX Traffic

My bank has an official WP app, Amazon is there, Fandango is there. I'm not a gamer, so I don't care about game apps for the most part. I use the standard mail app with my Outlook.com account. The apps I listed cover 99% of my daily app needs. I'm not seeing a huge problem here. However, if you want to download your local grocery store's app, then no, it might not be here.

And now, the negatives:

  1. If you're hooked on Apple services, save yourself a lot of heartache and buy an iPhone. You won't find iMessages here, or iCloud support. You can't open a Pages file on WP8 as far as I know. And if you're coming from an iPhone, you'll need to deregister your old device from your Apple ID before the Apple servers will allow iPhone users to send you SMS--otherwise, they'll be sending iMessages that go nowhere.
  2. If you're looking for Android-style openness, buy an Android phone. WP8 follows the same practice that iOS does when it comes to default apps. There's no way to tell it to use anything but IE for http links, for example, or to set a different default mail client. Fortunately, the default apps are damn good, but if that bothers you, look elsewhere. The flip side of that is that WP8 feels integrated in a way that Android doesn't, but your priorities should take precedence in your decision.
  3. There are a lot fewer Microsoft Stores out there than Apple Stores, so if you're used to running down to the Genius Bar for stuff, that may be more difficult. Personally, I've never needed to go to the Genius Bar for a phone, but it could happen. There's no Apple Care, so if you need an extended warranty, buy one from your carrier.
  4. The ecosystem for accessories isn't as extensive. You won't find as many different cases, for example. Nor will you find them on sale at the local airport as you race to catch a flight to Tokyo. On the other hand, they all use industry-standard earphones and Micro-USB power supplies, so your Kindle charger should work, for example.
  5. Finally, you'll have to explain to people why you switched. Some will think you're nuts. Fortunately, I've never cared much about that. ;-)

Would I recommend that someone switch? It depends on the person. My wife is addicted to her iPhone, and very happy with it, and as a smart husband I'm not going to disturb that. But if you're willing to try new things, or you just like playing with the new and the shiny, I think you'll be very pleasantly surprised by Windows Phone 8\. I've had no regrets about switching, and frankly can't imagine switching back.

This most definitely is not your father's Microsoft. :-)

Some truths remain eternal

I was looking through some old posts for import, and found this from 2007. It's by an old professor and friend of mine, and is as relevant today as it was then.

And there is this, finally, to say about America’s avoidable debacle in Vietnam: something very much like it could happen again. Not in the same place, assuredly, and not in the same way, but potentially with equally destructive results. This is the central lesson of the war. The continued primacy of the executive branch in foreign affairs – and within that branch of a few individuals, to the exclusion of the bureaucracy — together with the eternal temptation of politicians to emphasize short-term personal advantage over long-term national interests, ensures that the potential will exist… . If future Vietnams are to be prevented, the American people and their representatives in Congress will have to meet their responsibilities no less than those who make the ultimate decisions. Otherwise, American soldiers will again be asked to kill and be killed, and their compatriots will again determine, afterward, that there was no good reason why.

— Fredrik Logevall in Choosing War: The Lost Chance for Peace and the Escalation of War in Vietnam

The world just changed

The world just changed. Take note of this: it's a blog post, on a blog running on my own domain, that originated in App.net as a PM. In fact, I'm writing this in Patter. For now, I've made use of Google's woefully inadequate export tool, but eventually all of the posts from my other blog will be here too. I can post from an ADN PM, or from Evernote--and either way, all my stuff is backed up. No lock-in. This is going to be huge.

A post from DotDot

A post from DotDot.

Doing a test post from #DotDot for a few reasons:

  1. To check formatting

  2. Because I can :-)

  3. To see if PourOver has updated my feed yet.

And so it begins

And so it begins. Here's to the beginning of a blog that isn't dependent on Google in any way, shape or form. Bye-bye, Blogger!

Trying something new

This is my experiment with using Evernote to post to a blog.  

I'm still new at using Markdown, but if I got it right, this will be italicized, and this will be bolded.

I'm not sure what this will do.

Let's try a link!

So, it's been a while...

I haven't been around here much, for reasons that I'm not particularly inclined to go into. But there have been a few changes…

First, you've probably noticed a couple of "ads" over on the right.1 Yes, I've joined the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and I've also re-registered with the Green Party of California. Some of you will be surprised by this, particularly the latter. You shouldn't be. I've been somewhat disillusioned with our current political system for years now, and the revelations by Edward Snowden surrounding the NSA and Prism convinced me that both major parties have been complicit in a massive violation of the Constitution, and are hopelessly corrupted.

So, after thirty years of voting strategically, being sometimes a Democrat and other times a Republican, the time has come for me to do something different. I've arrived at a place where you can believe that the government has a legitimate role to play, without violating the Fourth Amendment and becoming the modern American Stasi. Where you can believe that corporations shouldn't have unfettered free reign, that we need serious electoral reform, that secret courts should not exist in this country, and that the environment really does matter. Simply put, I've decided to stop voting for the lesser of two evils, and to use my vote for something I believe in.

Similar feelings attend my decision to join the EFF. It's one thing to voluntarily cede a degree of privacy to Google or Microsoft in the name of convenience; it's quite another for the government to track your location, and to access the metadata of every phone call you make and every web site you visit, with no recourse available to you because it's all been authorized by the decisions of a secret court to which you cannot lodge an appeal. That is not what America is about. It is, in fact, the very diametrical opposite of what America is about. The EFF is fighting that and other battles on behalf of all of us. It is fighting for your rights as a free citizen, and it deserves your support.


  1. This was true when the blog was hosted on Blogger, but not now.